Pet Therapy Dogs Comfort the Sick

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He goes by the nickname “Snaggle.” Also known as Pippin, this nine-year-old white Standard Poodle features 65 pounds of silky fur and an inviting smile. Showing off a few tricks, Pippin works alongside his owner, Nelson Knapp.

The two are one of the many volunteer teams with Pet Therapy of the Ozarks who conduct visits to area residents.  Today, they are at the Cox Walnut Lawn Transitional Care Unit.

“Well, I really love being with Pippin and watching people interact with him.  He just seemed like he would bring a lot of joy to folks who are in the hospital.  And so it gives me an opportunity to be able to spend time with him, and share his special ‘person’ with the patients.  But it’s not just the patients it’s also the staff in the nursing homes and hospitals that we go to,” Knapp says.

Knapp and Pippin have been with PTO for the last five years.  He explains that the idea of using animals for therapeutic reasons was first realized by Florence Nightingale.

“She had an owl named Athena.  She used to go around and visiting her long-term patients with Athena on her shoulder.  And she was the first person to notice how pet interaction was very calming and therapeutic to patients.  So, 150 years later we’re still doing it,” says Knapp.

Knapp says dogs that do this kind of work have special training, must be even-tempered, well behaved with other dogs, and good with all types of people. With Pet Therapy of the Ozarks, dogs have to pass a special certification process. That includes achieving the American Kennel Club’s Good Canine Citizen obedience certificate before they can apply.  Next, the volunteer duo must complete a two-part testing workshop with PTO.

Getting to spend quality time with Pippin, says Knapp, is one of the best perks of the job.  He also enjoys the positive impact he feels they have on the visits.

“The best thing is just the interaction of individuals with the dogs.  There’s a lot of research actually about how therapeutic it is for dogs, or actually pets, to be interacting with patients. Their respiratory rate goes down, their blood pressure goes down, their heart rate goes down and they become less stressed out,” Knapp says.

Jim Freeman, is president of PTO.  Freeman and his canine partner Molly visit patients at the Hulston Cancer Center, an outpatient cancer unit with CoxHealth.

“It doesn’t make any difference whether we’re talking to the patients, or even the nurses and technicians.  They all enjoy us.  It’s those few moments they can either forget the work of the day, or the physical problems.”

Freeman and his wife first became involved with Pet Therapy of the Ozarks back in 1991 when the organization was first established.  He says it was after his retirement in 1999 that he really jumped in with both feet.

“I really think we are doing a wonderful service in that we visit not only the radiation area on the first floor, but also go to the second and sixth floor where they’re taking chemo.  It’s really about a three hour visit.  We get to stop and talk to any of those patients who want to talk.  A lot of them want to hold the dog, they want to pet it.  And they enjoy that,” Freeman says.

Freeman proudly holds Molly on his lap.  She is a perfectly groomed miniature schnauzer with expressive eyebrows and soft brown eyes.  Freeman says she is very calm and loves attention.  He doesn’t know if she realizes what good work she is doing, she simply enjoys the attention.

Both Knapp and Freeman agree, although some of the visits they make are in somber settings, there is nothing like seeing the uplifting responses of the patients as they are impacted by their canine visitors.

Marcy Keltner, nurse manager for the inpatient and outpatient oncology unit at Cox, otherwise known as 500 West, would agree. She says visits from the therapy dogs help divert attention away from the pain and discomfort these patients may be feeling.

“Well they [the patients] can stay anywhere from a few hours to six or eight weeks, sometimes even longer. Depending on, you know, their condition and what we’re treating and what’s going on with them.  We get a wide variety of different solid tumor cancers or hematologic cancers. We get some parents who are here just for comfort measures at the end of life.  Some get radiation.  So it’s a variety of things,” says Keltner.

Remember Pippin?  Keltner says patients at 500 West tend to be partial to this white Poodle, and Keltner is no different.

“One day I think he knew I was getting ready to have a physical event the next day.  He’s always very loving but that day it was different.  And he approached me more than I approached him.  I cannot put into words what was going on, but then when I had that event the next day, I said you know Pippin sensed something was wrong with me physically.  I know he did, because the interaction was so different,” Keltner says.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community, I’m Theresa Bettmann.

About the Author


 Theresa received her undergraduate degree in sociology at MSU, and now continues her education at MSU pursuing a Master’s degree of Social Work.   Theresa enjoys writing, drawing, reading, music, working with animals, and most of all spending time with her family.  She wishes to use her experience, combined with her pursuit of education, to foster a sense of empowerment and social awareness in the community.  Theresa says she loves working for KSMU and attributes her passion for NPR, and love of learning, to her father.